By Mitchell Keith Eaton
17 April 2012 – 6 May 2012
Outside the entrance to the gallery the first work displayed is on a stand, with a placard carrying words in graphics that we are accustomed to, but with an ironic change: ‘sorry, we’re open’. This simple sign is a foretaste of what is inside and an indication of Richard Tipping’s playful mind, with words and visual imagery fabricated from conventional street signage products.
The exhibition contains many kinds of artworks, from photographs to big steel signs, to street barricades, to the clever Bi-cycle (a bicycle with two handle bars; one at the front and one facing the back with no seat) the sculpture FLOOD and giclée printed works on paper.
Richard Tipping’s social sculpture works started with a poem in 1979 in Adelaide, in a suburb called Mile End, near a main road that led to the Airport. One night Tipping climbed up on the hood of his car and placed an ‘E’ that he had made over the ‘R’ on the ‘AIRPORT’ sign, so that it read ‘AIRPOET’; it is this catalyst that began his play of visual acuity and of the poetry that was his first love. The sign belonged to the people as an idea. It is in the belonging to the people, as an idea, that Tipping’s signs are utilitarian. The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the sole end of public action is both implicit and explicit in Tipping’s work. The irony is to be awakened by the visual cues that the work takes on from the public space and then converting them to public and private knowledge or joke. In Tipping’s work there is humour and a certain pathos that requires the viewer to look beyond; as the artist proposes in one work, to ‘QUESTION AUTHORITY’. It is a questioning of his very own medium, in questioning the instantly recognizable signs and symbols of the 20th and 21st century, that these public authority symbols and signs are questioned irreverently. Tipping’s wordplay questions this authority with the bright primary colours of reflective tape on aluminium and paper with his own poesy and iconic visual branding. This is ideally executed in the work GFC 2010/12 with the image of the iconic founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation: the Colonel and the graphics of the brand of KFC, with the letters altered to ‘GFC’. The impact is subtle, and yet it questions the whole realm of western standards of consumption and exploitation, and incorporates the doubt that one will ever see the fast food corporation KFC in the same light again. In this era of the Global Financial Crisis, addressing corporate greed and the entire culture of immediate consumption, this work is time specific.
Most of Tipping’s other works involve the triumph of the human spirit, particularly his SING (originally from a CROSSING sign in North Bondi Beach; erasing the ‘CROS’) and HUM (erasing the end ‘P’ in ‘HUMP’) works. These works, as well, speak to the public the optimism of an artist working in the public domain. FORM 1 PLANET (derived from ‘Form 1 Lane’) and naturally the original AIRPOET. Private Poetry – Trespassers welcome is another play on words with a reversible; a sign that makes you want to stay there in the gallery exploring the depths of the work. ART FREEWAY also falls into this category of lifting the human spirit. An altered sign eliminating the ‘ST’ from ‘START’, a photograph of this sign is displayed with the lines of the freeway’s concrete disappearing towards infinity. Although Tipping is careful where he places his poetry so as not to cause any harm to the motorists or pedestrians, it is the altered view that one must be careful of once having seen the signs that lift the human spirit. And once seen, the signs are incredibly powerful in changing the viewer’s perception of their surroundings of the current time and their perception of a future that is necessarily brighter and more optimistic; particularly if one sees the arts as the catalyst for making the world a better place, through ideas and creativity. These signs, once described by a worker as a ‘worker’s Christmas present’ are exactly that, although the hope is to effect positive change and an awakening.
Richard Tipping also works in subvertising, as in his reflective tape on steel frame PREPARE TO SHOP – the sign of easily recognizable graphics of ‘Prepare to stop’. Addressing the consumer culture of today’s society, one might almost see this in reality at Mr. Lowy’s Westfield complexes (and, one would be surprised if Mr. Lowy has not acquired this work for his extensive collection). The work REDUCE NEED (a play on ‘REDUCE SPEED’), made from reflective tape on a box-edged steel sheet, is perhaps a work that does not apply to Mr. Lowy’s ethos but certainly underlines the artist’s interest in the environment and sustainability.
The artist’s questioning of ‘what is art’ perhaps comes from the artist’s own insecurity about whether he is an artist or a poet. Free art before art frees you!, made from reflective tape and plastic, metal stand, and End artwork, artwork ahead fabricated from conventional street signage materials of reflective tape on box-edged steel sheet and A-frame legs, Sub-merging artists (the reversible of emerging artists), fabricated of reflective tape on aluminium – these represent Tipping’s idea of subvertising quite clearly – and Art keeps going in one eye and out the other, also made from reflective tape on aluminium, are all works that speak to the artist and public about the very nature of the artist and are somewhat Dadaist and Fluxus at the same time. The latter work, made from what one sees daily on the streets of an English-speaking locality, subverts the original authoritative message, questioning itself as to whether it is art, and asks the viewer to address the works from their own visual and artistic vocabulary. Effectively, this pushes the viewer’s thinking about artists: what they are, what they represent and the role they play in today’s multi-media digital environment.
Inspired by Fluxus, Tipping creates The Whispering Fence, made from fence palings engraved with reversible couplets; for example: ‘welcome stranger,
this is not yours’ and ‘flaming galahs, we all immigrated’.
It is these colloquialisms, and references to Australiana, i.e. Australian idiosynchrocies, Australian legal and political subject matter, that are current to the artist and the day, and which mark Tipping as a truly Australian artist with global flair. The Whispering Fence is very clearly an important work for Tipping, as it represents being able to communicate with the audience his poetry, which he finds very dear to him. Contrasting the wooden fence palings in the outside courtyard with the bold primary colours of the poetry in the interior gallery space, it seems that Tipping maintains a subtlety in the positioning of his poetry. He truly adheres to his sign – PRIVATE POETRY TRESPASSERS WELCOME. An edict, perhaps, from an art form ready again to be heard and read. As the artist’s aim is to get poetry into the art world, I believe that he is truly accomplishing his objective, and the reversible couplets on the fence are a part of that. Another way that Tipping’s work is characteristically Australian is in what one can understand as the larrikin sensibility. This sense of irony, and again the questioning of authority through the larrikin’s sensibility, in turn brings about the humour of the signs and the alleviation of the thoughts behind them, giving them a pure and simple quality. This is a quality of a pure Australian spirit. One does question, is this a result of the Australian convict heritage, or a triumph of the human spirit? Or are they some form of dangerous subversion? Wilfully hoping that one will sing when at North Bondi Beach or hum at the University of Sydney (or to prepare to shop at Westfield). Surely this is, on the whole, beneficial for the community; hence my belief that these basic ‘erasureables’ by Tipping enhance the human spirit.
Tipping even audaciously places his thumbprint over the map of Australia, which I thought was a kind of ASIO marking, but now I come to realise this represents his ambition to place his thumbprint all over Australia. Or it represents his belief that, by mere virtue of changing signs locally, he can affect the minds of others throughout the country who have seen his works. It becomes a new way of seeing signs and of knowing how to read them. This new way comes from the reality of Tipping’s signs converting to those of a more pastel variety. Tipping’s view of colour is that he likes ‘big bold, bright colours’. The simplicity of the colours is for the signage. The way of seeing more is enhanced by the basic primary colour combination, as it is repetitive.
Reversing the symbols and signs is also part of the artist’s vocabulary – the red STOP sign with the word ‘GO’ instead keeping the sign red; the UP with the arrow pointing down. The artist calls these simply ‘reversibles’; as it is your responsibility to question the status quo, it becomes another way to change the way signs look, after you have seen the signs. It is in this state of ‘after the sign has been viewed’ that one can question how long the new experience lasts; is it the next thirty seconds on the freeway, or is it 20 minutes, or 73 minutes, or seven hours, or seven days – or has the awareness become permanent? It is this gift that the artist offers for all to see.
 Richard Tipping, Saturday May 5 2012 at Australian Galleries Paddington